All Kidding Aside, Dmitry

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Stop me if you've heard this one. Two guys walk into a bar ... Wait, the two guys are European presidents. And short. And one has a hair transplant. OK, let me start again. Two short politicians walk into a European barber shop and, um ... hey, come back, this is really funny!

Successful joke telling requires a careful setup and clever payoff, as everybody around your office water cooler knows. But beyond these essentials, a good joke must also fall within a certain culturally acceptable playing field, where the boundary lines are sometimes ill-defined -- until you cross them. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was quickly reminded of this during his recent visit to Moscow, when he joked to President Dmitry Medvedev that U.S. President-elect Barack Obama was "young, handsome and even tanned."

Boom, this punch line set off cannonades of outrage worldwide, as legions of politically correct and spectrally attuned critics bombarded Berlusconi for insensitivity or outright racism. The gaffe-prone statesman indignantly replied that his intent had clearly been complimentary, a prevailing virtue unnoticed only by "imbeciles." As jokes by Italian prime ministers go, I liked this second one even better.

Obama, for his part, treated Berlusconi's sally with characteristically calm detachment, describing the Italian leader after a "long, cordial" telephone call the next day as "old, ugly and visibly jaundiced" -- and then quickly added, "but I like the hair." OK, I just made that up. What, Silvio can't take a joke? Is he an imbecile?

Seriously, as an American and two-time Obama voter, I found Berlusconi's jesting innocuous. Indeed, I had myself used the word "tan" as a thinly veiled reference to Obama in a draft "Arbat & Main" column submitted two weeks before Silvio sent up his flak magnet. Yes, if not for some astute (or imbecilic) red-lining by a Moscow Times editor, the correctness cannons might have reduced me to a grease slick a month ago.

Deep breaths, people. Surely the world's political discourse can turn slightly more colorful, literally and figuratively, with Obama in the White House. This is a man so comfortable in his own skin that he described himself at his first post-election press conference as a "mutt." Granted, a "tan mutt" might have been even better, but still bravo. Racial tensions might just go down a notch.

Russians do not normally expect jokes from their leaders, much less self-deprecating ethnic humor. Medvedev, who tends to smile a lot in a country that doesn't, laughed at Berlusconi's jape but did not risk one of his own. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who smiles less, is not widely known as a great kidder, having made "joking" references to rape, circumcising a French journalist and, most recently, hanging Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili by the private parts. Heh-heh.

Two widely told jokes highlight both the dark tinge of Russia's current "sovereign jocularity" and people's ambivalence toward revolving leadership roles. In one, Putin and Medvedev wake up in the Kremlin one morning in 2023 so hungover they can't remember who is president and who is prime minister. "I might be prime minister this time," Medvedev finally mumbles. "Then you go get the beer," orders Putin. In the other, Putin takes Medvedev to a restaurant and orders a steak. "And what about the vegetable?" the waiter asks. Putin looks across the table and says, "He'll have steak too." Take that, smiley.

George Orwell famously observed that "Every joke is a tiny revolution" -- a remark never quoted by Medvedev or Putin, since both dislike size references and revolutions. But seriously folks -- and before my visa is suddenly revoked -- let's imagine some of the jokes that might emerge from the first Obama-Medvedev summit. I'll provide the context and the punch line while you fill in the setup. That way, if the final joke is judged racist, size-ist or otherwise inappropriate, your visa might just get revoked instead of mine. Ready?

Context: Medvedev's first private chat with Obama. Punch line: "Yes, it was borderline, but remember -- Silvio owns half of Coppertone."

Context: Agreeing on a new procedure for resolving U.S.-Russian policy disputes. Punch line: "OK, but no dunking."

Context: Off-the-record explanation of who's really in charge in Russia. Punch line: "Yes, he's still very important: I'm standing on his shoulders."

If implacably correct listeners start a hassle over these, relax and tell them that Silvio sent you.

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.